With Jerzy Główczewski, the last living Polish fighter pilot who fought in WWII, talks Piotr Korczyński.
It is said that the profession of a pilot is one of the jobs which attract people with vocation. You transferred to the air force from the Independent Carpathian Brigade in 1942. Was it a calling?
Aviation was surely something I had been familiar with before the war, but can I perceive my choice as a calling? I don’t know. What I do know is that I would never trade places with anyone.
The thing is that for me the process was different than the question implies. War conditions in which I found myself did not give any time to think about or ponder over choices.
Before I became a soldier, I went through extremely dramatic ten days, when I suddenly had to leave the country after the German-Soviet invasion. Later came the year-long stay in Romania, and when it became almost entirely subordinated to German interests, I managed to get on a ship to Constantinople with several hundred other Poles. From Turkey, it wasn’t very far to Tel Aviv, where I passed high school exams at a Polish school and applied to join the already formed Polish Independent Carpathian Brigade.
After the Brigade came back from the desert frontline in Libya, I was directed to an officer cadet school in Palestine. We were then joined by those who had just undergone training and medical treatment after the evacuation of thousands of Poles from the Soviet Union. After several weeks of courses, the situation suddenly changed – we had one day to decide if we wanted to continue training at the then created 2nd Corps of the Polish Armed Forces in the East, or join one of three other courses, but already in England: in the parachute brigade, the navy or the air force. I chose the air force.
Thus began your arduous journey from Egypt to England.
Our group, transported by train from Palestine to Suez in Egypt, consisted of 300 volunteers and seven officers. About 30 of us came from the former Carpathian Brigade, and the others had survived Soviet camps and undergone medical rehabilitation in Iraq. After several weeks of travelling, our ship had a stop in New York.
At the New York port, among many other ships, we saw the Polish Batory. After sailing across the North Atlantic, we found ourselves at the Liverpool port, in a military convoy of a dozen or so huge passenger ships, repainted to look like military ones, carrying American troops. During the journey, we had already discussed where everyone was planning to go. In Scotland, we had a preliminary medical examination. No one told us where volunteers with assigned categories would be sent. After two weeks a few of my colleagues and I were taken to the RAF station in Blackpool, by the Irish Sea. We started our service by changing into air uniforms and attending some kind of informational courses.
In England, you started intensive flight training.
I don’t think I ever got to know the full program of the studies, their location or duration. Everything was a military secret. After some time, mostly devoted to drill training, about 50 chosen volunteers were sent to Hucknall near Notthingham for further ground-based studies. The commander of that unit was Maj Karczmarczyk, who I’d known before the war. He told me about the recent death of Col Stanisław Skarżyński, a good friend of the family. He didn’t let me fly in his trainer, though. I had to wait for the right moment, which came very late, at the end of June 1943, after I had taken part in several other Polish theoretical courses in various British towns.
What did the training look like?
There were two main profiles: for future pilots of fighters and bombers, referred to as multi-engine aircraft. I still remember my first independent flight on the De Havilland Tiger Moth aircraft. The next phase of training was basically getting to know the Spitfire fighter. Our group, numbering about 40 pilots, including six instructors, began advanced training on Spitfires on June 23. They lasted until August 20, 1944. We practiced all possible individual and group flight conditions. Low above the ground and high, where we needed oxygen masks. We practiced flights and stunts individually and in a group of about 12 machines flying in a tight line, one after another. After that, we would fly to a nearby training area to practice live firing from machine guns and 20 mm cannons hidden in the wings.
After completing training, every pilot knew so much about the Spitfire, as well as every other aircraft we used, that it’s hard for me to remember any extraordinary impressions or emotions. At that time many things became daily bread for us.
Did you feel that you were about to join the real fight?
Obviously, the question when we would join a squadron was one of the main topics of our conversations. The instructor I remember the most was Lt Eugeniusz Szaposznikow, one of the aces of the No. 303 Squadron.
Do you remember what you felt when you first sat at the controls of a fighter before going on an actual mission?
The squadron’s Spitfire which I took for my first flight didn’t have any bombs, because we went in a full wing of 12 machines, for a so-called rodeo, that is an altitude security check over frontlines in the Netherlands and Germany. The aim of my next flight was already bombing targets in the town of Opperdnit in the Netherlands with 500 pound bombs dropped from a dive, and then firing at ground targets from machine guns. We were constantly under heavy fire of the German anti-aircraft artillery. Fuselage hits were entered in the flight report. The ones that hit the engine or the controls usually sealed the pilot’s fate…
You flew one hundred sorties and took part in the last air battle of WWII over Geneva. It seems that Germans intentionally attacked you on January 1, 1945.
For sure. Germans had been preparing an attack for some time. I myself found out about it by chance, from a German book entitled Bodenplatte:TheLuftwaffe's Last Hope, published in 2004 in English. It said that the goal of the German command was destroying the allied air force on the ground, along the over 400-km frontline stretching from the Netherlands to central France. It is an exceptional description of the greatest tragedy that, in the opinion of the authors, happened to Luftwaffe during WWII. They had chosen the morning of the New Year 1945, because they had hoped that the activity of the allied air force would be temporarily withheld. However, no one had expected the presence of so many Polish pilots in the air. Our squadron was sent in the early morning of January 1 with the task of dropping bombs on barges on the Moselle. Since we had all enjoyed ourselves at a New Year’s Eve party, my mechanic Ryszard Kwiatkowski put a pipe with oxygen in my mouth so that I would recuperate. When we were coming back from the Netherlands/Belgium border to Ghent, we heard on the radio that there was a German raid and that we had to redirect towards Antwerp and Brussels. We couldn’t, because we didn’t have any petrol left, and we didn’t change the course to our landing site. When we arrived, the fight over the airport was nearing the end. I managed to shoot down one German aircraft literally at the last moment, because my propeller stopped when I was landing.
When planning the attack, Germans had assumed that everyone would be drunk, and they were right, since only two Polish squadrons took up the fight. Later, everyone was laughing that Poles can fight even with a heavy hangover.
Maj (Pilot) Jerzy Główczewski
Born on November 19, 1922 in Warsaw. A soldier of the Independent Carpathian Brigade, and later a pilot of the No. 308 (City of Kraków) Fighter Squadron. After the war, he finished studies at the Faculty of Architecture of Warsaw University of Technology. He worked, i. a., on rebuilding Warsaw. In the early 1960s, he became a lecturer at North Carolina State University. In 1964 he went to Aswan, were he was entrusted with the reconstruction and modernization of this ancient city. He worked in the USA and various Arab countries until retirement. He lives in New York. He is the author of memoirs: Accidental Soldier (2003), Optimist After All (2004) and The Last Fighter Pilot (2017).
autor zdjęć: arch. prywatne